Vietnam’s imperial city: our highlights of Hue

Nestled within the grand square confines of the Nguyen Dynasty's citadel, Vietnam's imperial city, Hue, weaves a tale of regal heritage and cultural splendor. The enduring legacy of these former rulers permeates every corner of this city, where the mausoleums they commissioned to grace the banks of the Perfume River and the descendants of those who once enjoyed their patronage still dwell in enchanting garden homes.

Though history has left its scars on Hue, with bullet holes from the turbulent days of the Vietnam War etched into the floors of the royal palace, the city stands tall with an air of regality and dignity. It's renowned for its scholars and artists and is a cradle of Vietnamese culinary excellence. Here, the gastronomic scene flourishes, thanks in part to the bountiful harvest of prawns and fish from the nearby Tam Giang Lagoon, a gracious neighbor to the city.

While many travelers breeze through Hue, allocating more time to the bustling metropolises of Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City, a Vietnam tour would only be complete with exploring this historical gem. Hue serves as a vital piece in unraveling the tapestry of Vietnam, where the nation's history, gastronomy, and culture converge. To make the most of your Vietnam travel guide, consider including Hue as a stop on your journey with the guidance of My Way Travel, your trusted Vietnam travel guide. Spend a few days in the city as part of a classic trip across Vietnam to make the most of the experiences described below.

Hue's historical highlights

The Citadel

Hue's zenith commenced during the late 18th century, marked by the ascension of Nguyen lord Gia Long to power in Vietnam. He declared himself Emperor, ushering in the illustrious Nguyen Dynasty. In just one day spent in Hue, you can embark on a journey through the remnants of his reign, commencing with the awe-inspiring citadel.

Spanning an expanse nearly equivalent to contemporary Hue, the citadel's formidable walls serve as guardians to the Imperial City. This meticulously designed complex, steeped in feng shui principles, encompasses administrative edifices, dynastic shrines, verdant parks, and the enigmatic Tu Cam Thanh, known as the Forbidden Purple City, shrouded in secrecy and reserved exclusively for the Emperor and his royal kin.

The ravages of the Vietnam War inflicted substantial damage upon the citadel, but a gradual restoration process is underway. Today, you can traverse the Ngo Mon, the southwestern gate, crowned by the Five Phoenix Watchtower, featuring its distinctive tiered roofs adorned in yellow and green glazed tiles, artfully resembling five birds in graceful flight. Inside the citadel, the Thai Hoa, resplendent in its resorted red and gold lacquer, beckons visitors. Though bearing the scars of bullet holes, the original floor tiles and mirrors have endured the test of time.

Wandering from the citadel, you can journey along the Perfume River to pay homage to the final resting sites of the Nguyen emperors. Scattered along the riverbanks, seven mausoleums stand as poignant tributes. Among these, the mausoleum of Minh Mang stands out, enveloped by fragrant frangipani gardens. Equally remarkable is the mausoleum of Tu Duc, an opulent complex graced by lakes, temples, and pavilions.

In the enchanting tapestry of Hue's history, these cultural gems await your exploration, each unveiling a chapter of Vietnam's imperial legacy.

The DMZ and the Vinh Moc Tunnels

Vinh Moc Tunnels

Amidst the turbulent backdrop of the Vietnam War, the DMZ, known as the demilitarized zone, emerged as a poignant symbol of division, separating the war-torn lands of North and South Vietnam. Venture forth on a guided tour, and you'll find yourself traversing through a tapestry of historical significance etched into the very fabric of this region. Overgrown American bases are silent witnesses to ancient battles, remnants of the relentless Ho Chi Minh Trail whisper tales of resilience. Dong Ha, the northernmost bastion of South Vietnam, bears scars of a conflict that shaped a nation.

Beyond the boundaries of the DMZ, the Vinh Moc Tunnels beckon, an underground marvel born out of necessity, as villagers sought refuge from the relentless bombardment of American bombs. Upon my arrival, my knowledgeable guide unveiled a hidden world, unveiling the craftiness of the tunnel dwellers. Cleverly concealed as wells, these innocuous openings in the earth served as vital air vents for the labyrinthine passages below.

Descending into the bowels of the tunnels, one is met with an intricate network spanning three levels, each progressively diminishing in size. Many of these tunnels remain accessible, frozen in time, offering an authentic glimpse into their original state. With minimal lighting to guide your way and the occasional lifelike manikin posed as a 'villager,' the Vinh Moc Tunnels preserve a haunting authenticity that echoes the resilience of those who once sought refuge within their subterranean sanctuary.

Freshly picked produce in Hue's garden houses

In the heart of Vietnam, nearly two-thirds of Vietnamese dishes hail from Hue, where visionary chefs from the royal court crafted sumptuous dishes to satisfy the exacting palates of their aristocratic patrons. This enclave of gastronomy leans heavily on an abundance of spices, a privilege funded by the royal treasury. The distinctive spring roll folding technique, which is unique to Hue, is an example of how Hue's culinary masters concentrated on taste and perfected the art of presentation.

This culinary tradition was the pride of affluent families, often comprising scholars, poets, or courtiers, who lovingly passed down their recipes through generations. Nestled in the city's outskirts, they dwelled in elegant nha vuon, or garden houses. These single-story abodes featured expansive terracotta-tiled roofs to ward off the summer heat. They were surrounded by meticulously manicured gardens with bonsai trees, serene water features, and, most importantly, fresh produce, from succulent pineapples to crunchy peanuts.

Bun thit nuong

Remarkably, many of these exquisite garden houses have endured the test of time. Accompanied by my local guide, Phuong, I embarked on a journey to explore the garden house of Be Phan-Dinh. We pedaled through the enchanting garden house district, passing orderly hedgerows and graceful bamboo groves. Each residence welcomed visitors with a dignified stone entrance gate adorned with the timeless Vietnamese symbol of longevity. As a gracious gesture of hospitality, Be unveiled her family's ancestral altar, where the gaze of our ancestors met ours through photographs.

A tour of the lush garden, a veritable Eden filled with jackfruit and plum trees, untamed pineapple bushes, and huge pumpkin vines, served as the prelude to our gastronomic excursion. Then, we put on aprons in Be's kitchen and made a colorful mango salad. My duty entailed carefully grating guava and green mango. Be kindly shared the recipe for her special dressing, a flavorful concoction of chile, lime, fresh garlic, palm sugar, and fish sauce, at the same time. Almost all ingredients, including the thin, curly slices of purple banana blossom, had just been picked.

We savored our creations on the shaded veranda. The feast included a trio of other delectable dishes, such as bun thit nuong, a tantalizing rice noodle dish crowned with succulent pork, and crispy deep-fried spring rolls – all masterfully prepared by Be as I wrestled with my mango-grating challenge. The mango salad, a true emblem of Hue cuisine, danced on the palate with its medley of sweet, spicy, and tangy flavors, brought to life by the freshest ingredients.

For those seeking an immersive experience, the opportunity to spend the night with Be and her family awaits. A simple bedroom adjacent to the family temple offers a peaceful night's rest. Anticipate an early awakening, serenaded by the crowing of the family's rooster, followed by a warm welcome from Be, who will greet you with freshly squeezed pineapple juice, fragrant bread, and fresh eggs.

Art and culture in Hue

Hue Festival to Honor City of world Heritage

Under the Nguyen Dynasty's generous patronage, an era of remarkable flourishing dawned in Hue. Here, artists, poets, musicians, and skilled craftspeople found their creative spirits set free to thrive. Even amidst the tumultuous tides of modern history, Hue has retained its status as Vietnam's vibrant nucleus of culture and artistry. Here, timeless techniques are faithfully preserved, and the spark of contemporary creativity is passionately fanned.

In the contemporary world, Ngo Truong Dinh and his talented artist wife, Camille Huyen, have graciously opened the doors of their garden-house sanctuary on the tranquil northern banks of the Perfume River. Here, visitors are welcomed with refreshing lemonade and delectable homemade pastries, followed by an enchanting tour of their exquisite abode and art gallery.

Upon my arrival, Ngo guided me through the garden to a hidden gem – his "swimming pool," a serene stretch of the river he gracefully traverses every morning.

While not an original structure, their house is a labor of love, meticulously crafted from reclaimed materials, mirroring the architectural grandeur of the ancient Imperial City. Its tiered roofs adorned with vividly painted ceramic tiles and mosaic artistry left me in awe, nearly outshining the royal palaces.

With evident pride, Ngo will personally escort you through the gallery adorned with a splendid collection of Camille's work. Spanning over three decades, her artistry spans the spectrum from Abstract Expressionism to Impressionism, particularly emphasizing the captivating realm of self-portraiture.

Following the insightful tour, you're invited to share a delightful moment over refreshments with the warm and welcoming couple Camille and Ngo. They're not only eager to delve into the rich tapestry of Vietnamese culture and art with their guests but also view each encounter as a cultural exchange and a precious opportunity to forge meaningful connections with new acquaintances.

Hands-on, creative experiences in Hue

Trucchi Gallery

The delicate method of inlaying eggshells into the lacquered surface was developed in the city, where lacquerware is a labor-intensive, 2,000-year-old craft.

Showrooms throughout the city will exhibit the lacquering process' (sometimes more than 100) phases. Still, we can set up a visit to a studio where you can sit down with the artisans and customize a piece as a souvenir.

Additionally, modern methods are gaining acceptance. I went to the Trucchi Gallery of artist Phan Hai Bang to understand the fundamentals of this brand-new paper art.

We went outdoors to a huge water trough where people may try crafting trucchi. You add pre-cut foam forms on top after dipping a mesh sheet into the bamboo pulp water to make a layer of moist paper. The exposed pulp is sprayed off with a device resembling a little jet washer, creating a textured pattern. The next day, when it has dried, your paper will be delivered to your hotel.

Then he led me back into the gallery where one of his young employees switched on some lights to illuminate sheets of expertly manufactured trucchi hanging on the wall, the light beaming through several layers of uniquely formed fine paper pulp.

Start planning your trip to Vietnam

Start thinking about your experience. These itineraries are simply suggestions for how you could enjoy some of the same experiences as our specialists. They’re just for inspiration, because your trip will be created around your particular tastes.

Start thinking about your experience. These itineraries are simply suggestions for how you could enjoy some of the same experiences as our specialists. They’re just for inspiration, because your trip will be created around your particular tastes.